After two terms as Knox County mayor, Tim Burchett has decided to throw his Carharrt into the ring to replace outgoing 15-term Representative Jimmy Duncan in Tennessee’s 2nd congressional district. As he concludes his final term and prepares for the future, Burchett visited the Cityview studios to discuss his legislative and executive accomplishments, his theory of governance, his thoughts on serving in the U.S. Congress, and a few of the more outlandish moments in his political career.
Nathan Sparks: So, Mayor Burchett, how did you first get into politics?
Tim Burchett: Well, really I just got mad. I was at a very successful mulch business, but government was impeding its growth and finally put me out of business. I took all that frustration with government, and I called people for their help, but I couldn’t get people to return my phone calls. I thought, “Man I’ve grown up here in Knoxville.” And a lot of my family is here. My mom and dad were both public educators. We knew everybody. I played ball with all these folks kids, and they wouldn’t even call me back. I swore that if I was ever able to help folks in that position, I would. That was my start.
S: When we spoke in March of 2013, you called yourself a “limited libertarian.” Is that still true?
B: I’d say that’s pretty accurate. I’m a Republican, but I come from the personal responsibility end of the party. I’m not a credit card liberal. I think people should be held responsible for their actions. It’s my business what I do; if it’s not affecting anybody else, then it’s my business.
S: You’ve always been a proponent of smaller government. Why?
B: It goes back to personal responsibility. I think we as individuals have more control and do a better job of running our lives than government. I’ve never seen where government has come into a situation and made things better. Granted, we need government to build roads, and fight wars, and lock up bad people; but government oversteps its bounds daily.
S: How long did you serve in the state legislature?
B: Sixteen years: four years in the House and twelve years in the Senate.
S: What would you consider your biggest accomplishment?
B: I’ve passed a lot of legislation toward prosecuting child molesters, which have taken a lot of bad people off the street and protected a lot of innocent kids. A lot of my best work (and what propelled me to run for county mayor) was constituent service: just picking up the phone and answering people’s questions. Legislation will get you in the headlines, but constituent service gets you elected and re-elected.
S: So what has your biggest accomplishment as mayor been?
B: Well we paid down a heck of a lot of debt, which isn’t the case in many places across the country. Look at Detroit, Michigan; they just declared bankruptcy. Here, we’ve seen our bond rating increase, we paid down debt, we actually built a school paid for in cash—which is just unheard of—and we did it during a pretty tough economic environment. We didn’t have wholesale layoffs, and we also did not raise taxes. So I think overall morale of the county has been increased. I think county employees are once again proud to say “Yeah, I work at Knox County.’
S: You seem to have a lighthearted relationship with city mayor Madeline Rogero, who might be considered a political opponent. How does that relationship work?
B: Madeline and I are pretty good buddies: I call her “Rogero”; she calls me “Burchett.” We get along very well. We understand our respective roles. She is obviously more socially liberal than I am. But I find her to be honest. If I can find somebody honest in political circles, I can build on that. We talk periodically. We talked this morning, and we are friends. She is friends with my family, and she’s good to my girls. Sure, we’re going to disagree on things, but that’s just the nature of the beast. And I forgive her when she’s wrong, which works out.
S: You’ve served in both executive and legislative roles. Which do you prefer best?
B: I like them both. I understand the roles. I’ve had blessings in that I’ve been fairly successful in both. I was talking to one of our CEO’s here in Knoxville after I had been in office for a couple years, and we were laughing about my style of leadership. I get community input, but I know right from wrong. I don’t drag things on the way they do in Washington with hearings upon hearings when they already know that they need to fix the problem. When people come in with a problem or an issue that we’re going to move ahead with, I ask my office two questions. I ask “Is it legal?,” and if they say yes, then I ask “Is it ethical?” If they say “Yes, it’s ethical,” then we go ahead. If they say it’s not, then we don’t.
S: One of the things I always admired about you is your willingness to do what you think is right, regardless of the political consequences.
B: I feel like I answer to a higher calling. I’m a Christian. I’m not saying I am a role model, but I grew up in a family made up of wonderful people. My mama was a school teacher. She grew up during the depression as the youngest of seven kids. They had no electricity until she was a senior in high school.
She flew an airplane during WWII. I would consider her a star, and my father was equally cool. He fought in WWII. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, he enlisted in the Marine Corps. They needed officers. His IQ test was very high, so they sent my dad to Georgia Tech. My dad was afraid he’d miss the war, so he skipped his midterm exams and purposely failed himself out. Then he went on and distinguished himself in the Marine Corps in several battles in the Pacific and in China. When he came back, he became a Dean at UT and made some tough stands during the integration period in our local community. Both my parents are in heaven, and I miss them every day. Everything that I’ve ever accomplished in my life is due to the things that they put in me: the values and things like that that. If I ever mess up it’s on me because they taught me right from wrong.
S: You said Congress has too many meetings and stretches things on. How would you plan on “Burchettizing” the U.S. Congress?
B: Well I’d go to leadership, and I wouldn’t fluff them up. If they asked me, I’d tell them I’m tired of it, and I think the public is tired of it. We’ve had enough hearings, and I think that’s on purpose. They see problems with the VA—veterans committing suicide, not able to see a doctor for long periods of time—and they’ll have a meeting. It’ll be in six months when we’ve already moved on to some other calamity in our country. I think that’s by design because they don’t want to make any tough decisions.
S: Is that why you’ve said that sometimes you feel like political parties are a joke?
B: Absolutely. The national parties have continuously failed us. They’re about getting re-elected. If it wasn’t for our local parties, I think the two-party structure would probably cease to exist. We talk about the Republicans now controlling everything—the House and Senate, judgeships and the Presidency. We hear we need to reach across the aisle. Well heck, we need to reach into our own aisle. The best we can do to solve healthcare, after seven years of Obamacare, is to have six or seven old white dudes walk out in their Brooks Brothers suits and basically kick a bunch of poor people off healthcare? That’s not a solution.
S: What is your solution to Obamacare?
B: Market-driven principles: look at Lasik surgery for instance. We allowed a free market to drive that one small case. It started out costing thousands upon thousands of dollars, and now it’s down to around $500. That’s market-driven. We hardly ever let the market drive medicine. Unfortunately, what we’ve done is let the bureaucrats drive it.
S: With all of this in mind—and after contemplating a run for the Governor’s office— what has prompted your decision to run for Congress?
B: Well it’s hard to explain other than saying that I prayed about it. I asked God what I needed to do. He speaks to me, just not in an audible voice. If you’re falling off a roof and you say “God, help me!” and a nail catches your pant leg, you think “Never mind, God. I don’t need you. I’ve got this.” In my opinion, God put that nail there. I was in a salt truck on an icy road about two or three years ago during the big ice storm we had in Knox County. I was in the passenger seat, and we were going about five miles an hour. We started drifting off to the side, and the driver said “Oh no, oh no,” and I asked “What’s wrong?” and I realized we were drifting. That’s a very sick feeling when you’re in a two-ton salt truck, out of control. There was this little patch of street, and we went off the edge and just stopped. If not for this one tree, we would have gone off. I mean it was a 20 or 30-foot drop. To me, God planted that tree sixty years ago knowing that I would be going off that cliff. I truly believe that. God, in the same way, told me to run. Not in an audible voice, but he showed me the options. I have a family now and this looked like the best option for me.
S: As a legislator, you sponsored the “roadkill bill”; as mayor, you promoted Animal Planet’s search for Bigfoot here in Knox County. What was the response like?
B: Actually, the bill didn’t have anything to do with what the national media was saying. The bill allowed you to report what you hit. At the time in the state of Tennessee, we had about 6 million people. And we had a deer population that some estimated to be close to almost one million. That’s just hard for me to believe; it was probably closer to a quarter or half a million. Regardless, if you hit a deer, you couldn’t legally dispose of the body because the TWRA—the state of Tennessee—technically owned it. You’d have to call the TWRA. I’m a lifetime hunter and fisherman, and I’ve had a license most of my life. But I wouldn’t know whom to call. They’re hard to get ahold of. Tommy Head, brother of Pat Head Summit, our famous basketball coach, was the House sponsor. He represented Clarksville, and he had a situation where there were some dead deer that had been hit in somebody’s yard, and he couldn’t get TWRA to come get it. We modeled the bill after the state of New York’s bill, which passed years ago. Basically it said that if you hit an animal, you can call your local law enforcement, which you would do anyway because of the damage to your car, and they would report it. And you could dispose of the animal however you felt the need to. It didn’t really have anything to do with eating possums.
“What do you call a group of Bigfoot hunters in our woods? Campers.” They come here and spend a lot of money, those clubs do, and we just encourage it. Any time that you can promote our natural beauty, our mountains and our streams and things like that, I think it’s a good idea. It turns kids on to science, and they go to the library, and I don’t see anything wrong with that at all.
S: You mentioned to my son once that you loved woodworking, especially with bamboo. How did you choose bamboo as one of your woods?
B: Well actually bamboo technically is a grass. It goes back to 1980 when I played football at Bearden High School. We had two-a-day practices in the afternoon. I would come home after the first practice just nursing my wounds because I was the smallest guy on the team, and I would read National Geographic. I remember reading an article on bamboo, and it just fascinated me. Bamboo is a poor man’s carbon fiber. They’re actually using it at Oak Ridge National Laboratory now as a substitute for carbon fiber. It’s just an incredible grass, and there are over one-thousand varieties. It’s beautiful, it’s durable, it kills germs, and it’s absorbent. It’s even used in the army a lot.
S: Are you in favor of national constitutional carry policy?
B: Absolutely. I think we’ve got one already. The Second Amendment doesn’t say you have to go to your state to get a permit. I think constitutional carry is there if we have the right interpretation.
S: What other freedoms do you think are being attacked by the government?
B: Our First Amendment. People say things that are offensive to me all the time, but I don’t think anyone should be able to stop them from saying it. A crowd of people was at an event picketing me, and someone asked, “Doesn’t that make you mad?” I said “Well yeah, but it would make me madder if someone made them stop.” He asked, “What do you mean?” I said, “You know, my dad fought for that. My mama lost her brother fighting the Nazis for that. And they don’t have anything like it in North Korea, China, Russia or even some of these European countries. They definitely don’t have it in the Middle East.” I worry about our First Amendment daily. On our college campuses, I see a bunch of folks that have never endured what folks like my parents and the people that made this country endured. I see a generation that appears to be tearing down everything that these hardworking folks built, and it scares the daylights out of me.
S: How does the common person fight fake news?
B: Turn it off. Don’t buy it. If it’s in a paper, don’t buy the paper. If a company is advertising on a fake news story, call them up. Tell them, ‘I’m not buying your automobiles. I’m not eating your hamburgers. I’m not buying your clothes.’ I do it.
S: What would you say to the voters about the Washington culture and how it seems to corrupt people? How do you propose that you’ll keep your campaign and Congressional office free from corruption?
B: Well I think it just goes back to where I come from, what I’ve done, and where I’ve been. Everybody should be held accountable; I should be held accountable. I don’t put myself on any pedestal above anybody else. I think Fred Thompson said it best. He was half-heartedly joking, but I think he was telling the truth. He said, “The worst thing they ever did in Washington was put air conditioning in the Capitol building because they could stay there year round.” It’s supposed to be a part-time job. When we were in Nashville, we would get into these special sessions over taxes. I’ve been there on a Sunday. I was there on the 4th of July. We would stay until we’d fixed the problem, and they don’t do that in Washington.
S: If you go to Washington, will you actively support term limits?
B: Absolutely. I’ve talked about term limits in the past. You have to be careful though, Nathan, because with term limits come different problems. Do you want someone who’s a first-term congressman to be elected Speaker of the House? Say you give them a two-term limit, and they can stay four years. Then who is going to run the Capitol? It would be the lobbyists and the staff people.
S: There is tremendous waste in government. Will you support a balanced federal budget?
B: Yes. We have one at the Burchett household. When we run out of money, I don’t send my wife and daughters to the basement with a hundred-dollar bill and a copier to print more. That’s basically what they do in Washington. We borrow from our enemies. One of these days that amount is going to come due and the American dollar—that thing that everyone works for—is going to be worth nothing.
S: Taxation has become ridiculous. The law is complex and difficult and not always fair. Will you support a flat tax and a reform of the IRS?
B: I support a reform. I need to read your proposal for a flat tax. I’ve seen many different proposals. In principle, I agree with that. The IRS is a parasitic organization. But I feel like people run on things like IRS reform, and they don’t ever follow through with it. Some critiques of me have said that I need to get out of campaign mode. What they were saying was, “Yeah, that got you elected, but we need you to change and do something else.” In Washington, you’ve got this mentality of “that’s the way we’ve always done it, and you need to go sit over in your corner.” I don’t plan to sit in any corner, and I’m not going to be one of these guys who votes against everything and then you see me on CSPAN at two in the morning giving some bogus speech.
S: What else can we expect from this platform?
B: Another thing we need to look at is energy independence. We need energy independence. That makes people nervous on the environmental side, but it shouldn’t. We’ve got over 500-years-worth of coal in the ground. Surely with the minds at ORNL, the top research facility in the country if not the world, if we spent a portion of the money we’re spending on these bogus wars, we could find a way to use gasification of coal in a process that was created in the 1910’s by a German. The Germans used it for gas and diesel for most of WWII. Yes, it’s going to cost millions of dollars to research, but I’ll tell you, the folks in India and the folks in China are pumping millions into it. If they think something can come out of that, I think we ought to follow suit. We can use solar technology and windmill technologies. I’m not so much of a fan of that. It looks good, but it’s basically art for big birds. You’ve got some here in Tennessee, and they whine about the efficiency. We need to look at other alternatives.
S: For many years, including this year, Cityview readers have named you as the top area politician. We had 302,000 votes this year, that is statistically significant. With that in mind, tell us why you are the right man for the job that you’re running for.
B: I understand the district. Somebody said one time I speak fluent East Tennessee. I think they were saying tha I was redneck, but the reality is that I understand what folks are saying.
I grew up here. I went to school here. My family grew up here, and this is where I choose to stay. I like the way we think. We have a degree of personal responsibility. We solve our own problems. We’ve got our problems, but we don’t have the problems you see up north or in some areas out west. We come from a low-tax state. Some people complain about that, but I think that’s a great thing. I think it can get better, though. I think those kinds of values are what we need in Washington right now. We don’t need more from the other side. I’m talking about Republicans just as much as Democrats who claim we need more government assistance, that we need this program or that program. Government is not supposed to run a safety net, and we’ve allowed that to happen. It’s a sad state of affairs in our country when we have to turn to Washington for everything. They always ask me, “What if we have a disaster?” God forbid that we ever have anything like what hit Florida or Texas. But if we ever have a disaster, we’re not going to wait six months on tractors to get here. We’ll get to work, and we’ll take care of ourselves.
S: We’ve shown that with the fire in Sevier County. We were immediately helping people, and immediately getting them money.
B: Exactly. We take care of our own.